Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been in love with milk bread. It has a golden crust and soft fluffy texture, which melts in your mouth leaving a hint of a sweet after-taste. It’s a perfect bread to toast for breakfast, but it actually works well for sandwiches too (assuming you can resist the urge to eat the all fluffy thing just out of the oven, a temptation to which it is not easy to resits, in my personal experience…).
What I did not know when I was a kid, is that milk bread is actually a staple in Asian bakeries. The beloved soft texture is the result of an Asian baking technique called tangzhong method. This involves adding a roux (the tangzhong) of flour, water and milk to your yeast bread mixture, which helps make it lighter and fluffier when it’s baked.
Most importantly, it solves one of the frustrations faced by all home bakers, i.e. the typically short “shelf-life” of home-baked bread. The tangzhong has a gel-like consistency that retains moisture during baking, so that it does not evaporate. The result is a moister and lighter bread, which stays soft for longer. For someone like me who loves baking bread at home, this has been a truly revolutionary discovery!
But it gets eve better. The tangzhong method in fact is not limited to milk bread but can work well with other yeast breads, once you learn the basics of it (The Fresh Loaf has useful how-to on incorporating a tangzhong in different recipes). So learning this little trick could unlock the door to a whole new world of fluffy and long-lasting home-baked bread! Do I need to say more?
Ingredients (1 loaf) – adapted from King Arthur Flour
For the tangzhong:
- 3 tablespoons water
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- 2 tablespoons Flour
For the bread:
- 2 1/2 cups (310g) bread flour (all purpose worked also perfectly well for me)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
- 1/2 cup (115ml) whole milk
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons (25g) butter
- milk for brushing
- 1 cup ice cubes for baking with steam
Make the tangzhong: combine all the tangzhong ingredients in a small saucepan, and whisk well until no lumps remain. Cook the mixture over low heat, whisking constantly until it thickens. You should see that the whisk leaves lines on the bottom of the pan (it will take about 3 to 5 minutes). Let it cool to room temperature.
Heat the 1/2 cup of milk until lukewarm, and sprinkle the yeast over it. Set it aside for 10 minutes for the yeast to activate (the yeast should start bubbling).
Meanwhile, prepare the dry ingredients. In a bowl, sift together the flour, salt and sugar. In a smaller bowl whisk together the tangzhong, egg and the two tablespoons of butter, melted.
When it’s ready, add the yeast mixture to the wet ingredients, make a well in the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients in. Stir until incorporated, then knead until you get a smooth, elastic dough.
Form a ball with the dough and place it in a large bowl, covered with plastic wrap or a damp towel. Let rise for 1 to 2 hours (2 hours is better, in my experience).
Once this time has passed, gently deflate the dough and shape it into a pan lined with parchment paper or lightly greased. I normally divide the dough into three or four equal pieces. For each piece, I roll the dough out to a long oval, fold the oval into thirds widthwise, then roll the dough up lengthwise and place into the loaf pan seam-side down.
Cover with a towel and let it raise for 45-60 more minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350°F, placing a pan on the bottom rack. Brush the loaf with milk (1 or 2 tablespoons). Place the loaf in the oven and pour the ice cubes into the pre-heat pan on the bottom rack, closing the door of the oven immediately. This will create a steamy environment in the oven, helping the loaf to raise as much as possible before developing the outer crust.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until golden-brown on top.